WBA Preview: Probable Starting XI, Formation And Tactics
Arsenal continue their quest for continuous Champions League qualification under Master Wenger as the good samaritans of Ashburton Grove take their 18-man army to West Bromwich Albion this afternoon for one final battle to fulfill their destiny and concurrently restore order to the realm of North London football rivalry. Failure today would unleash a maelström of negativity that is likely to shake the very foundation of the Gunners’ sustainable universe and may even result in the seduction of Jedi warrior Robin van-he-vants Scorer to the blue side of the oily force.
That’s enough hyperbole already, let’s get to the starting XI.
There’s a good chance Theo Walcott will be involved today. If he’s in the squad, I expect him to start the match. For one, he’s not been convincing as a substitute and for another, it will give AW the chance to change things if there are any lingering ill-effects. With Walcott starting, Gervinho would move over to the left.
Song and Rosicky are sure starters as well, so there’s only position up for grabs in the midfield. Aaron Ramsey is struggling with form and I think AW will not risk him today. The Ox has played in the centre a few times already this season but the youngster has been more effective as an impact sub. While Benayoun has mostly played on the left, he does drift inside a lot and on current form, I think the Chelsea loanee is likely to get the nod ahead of the others.
There are suggestions we should play 4-4-2. As compared to the 4-3-3, it obviously provides more firepower up front with two strikers and would also be helpful to our wide play. But being a a man short in midfield and the possibility of seeing less of the ball in that crucial area may not appeal to Arsene for such a vital game.
It can also prove counter-productive if the players revert to their more familiar positions during the game for e.g. if the wingers keep drifting in and the full backs push up too much, the man disadvantage in midfield could leave our back-line vulnerable to counter attacks. Although to be fair, we haven’t coped very well even with two deep sitting midfielders – specially when Arteta’s been absent.
I expect Benayoun and Rosicky to play behind the front three with Song as the holding midfielder in a 4-1-2-3. In addition to their attacking duties, both players will be charged with either breaking up or delaying West Brom attacks when we lose the ball.
Roy Hodgson has rarely changed the 4-4-2 this season. The Baggies are hampered by the absence of Jerome Thomas and influential captain Chris Brunt. Peter Odemwingie is fit however, and wants to give a winning send-off to Roy Hodgson. Gunners be warned, the Nigerian has scored both times he’s played against Arsenal.
Marc-Antoine Fortune up front will be an important player for them as well. His layoffs for the tricky Odemwingie have the potential to catch the Arsenal defense flat-footed. They also carry an attacking threat from set pieces with Scharner and all the defenders possessing good aerial ability.
Obviously, Arsenal’s main concerns are at the back where we’ve been susceptible to counter attacks all season. If you want a better understanding of the defensive problems plaguing us, read Desi Gunner’s detailed analysis post-Norwich on how various players are getting caught out of position when attacks break down, thus allowing the opposition to create clear-cut chances.
While some of these problems are down to individual errors, many are more deep-rooted and will not be solved overnight. What the Gunners can do in the meantime is to cut out the mistakes and have a plan to counter some of the more obvious issues.
One of them was the regularity with which Norwich created 2 v 2 and even 3 v 2 situations last Saturday, as highlighted in my review post. While Holt and Jackson did play well, it was Arsenal’s failure to spot this threat that contributed to the two Baggies strikers getting the ball in dangerous areas. The fact that Norwich didn’t play a narrow defensive game meant both Arsenal full backs and our two deeper midfielders found plenty of space to work in and kept pushing up, leaving Koscielny and Vermaelen isolated.
West Brom are likely to play with two up front as well. Once again, I expect Arsenal to see a lot of the ball in WBA’s half and plenty of space to work in. What we mustn’t do is get carried away by throwing everybody forward and losing shape, thus exposing the two centre-halves once more.
To avoid this, one of the full-backs needs to hold a deeper position when the other one is up the pitch and track back much faster when the ball is first lost. If both full-backs are committed in the attacking play, then Song or even one of Rosicky/Benayoun has to fall back. At all times, the aim should be to maintain a man advantage over Brom’s two strikers. The extra man can team up with a defender to dispossess the ball carrier or track the run of a runner from midfield when the ball breaks.
Of course, dropping a man deeper would create a gap between the back line and the two creative midfielders in front. Most times, we compress this space by holding a high line. If we do so tomorrow, the central defenders need to remain alert to the danger of a long ball catching them out, and Szczesny needs to be on his toes and clear his lines when required.
In attack, I think we have enough firepower to open West Brom up. The wide forwards will run at West Brom’s defense with the full backs supporting. The two creative midfielders will keep floating and interchanging while the holding midfielder will direct play from a deeper position and simultaneously offer protection for the central defenders. At least that’s the theory!
Robin van Persie’s scoring touch has returned, Gervinho looked sharp in the second half last Saturday and Theo Walcott can be a deadly finisher on his day. Tomas Rosicky looked good again last week and Yossi Benayoun can always be counted on to make himself available all over the pitch. When you factor in Kieran Gibbs pace down the left and Francis Coquelin’s impressive showing when he replaced Bacary Sagna, we certainly have an attacking force capable of creating chances – even without the clever chips of Alex Song or the forward charging runs of Thomas Vermaelen.
Having said that, I think it will be a tight game. West Brom have nothing to gain but equally if not more importantly, they have nothing to lose. They will want to play some good football and send Roy Hodgson off on his hellish assignment on a high. Most times, teams expressing themselves freely tend to play the best football.
For all the tactical discussions, nervousness may be our biggest enemy today. If we can hold our nerve, we have every chance of beating West Brom. As much as I desire victory though, I sense the anxiety of getting over the line will manifest itself in some form this evening.
My prediction is a 2-2 draw, with Arsenal pegged back at the end. In such a case, we would be dependant on a favorable result elsewhere. Squeeky bum time, indeed.
Enjoy the game. Until tomorrow, when I’ll be back with match review.